SALT LAKE CITY — For 16 months, Boston Celtics forward Gordon Hayward has had to think about what it would be like to return to Salt Lake City and face the Utah Jazz, the team he played for in the first seven years of his NBA career.
Friday night, he finally did. And, after scoring 13 points and dishing out seven assists in a game the Jazz emerged from with a 123-115 victory, Hayward admitted he’d entered the day unsure of whether he was excited about returning — or dreading it.
“Something in between,” Hayward said, after a long pause, and with a smile. “More than anything, I was looking forward to seeing [people]. I spent seven years here, so I built some great relationships and was looking forward to seeing some of those people … maybe dreading a little bit about just the hoopla of the whole thing.
“We’re focused on our own thing, and I know the Jazz are focused on their thing, too.”
That, in the end, is what made this night such an odd one. Sure, the Jazz fans did what everyone expected them to do — unleash a torrent of boos on their former favored son whenever he came anywhere close to the ball, and an equal number of cheers whenever he did something wrong. But for Hayward himself, and for the Jazz organization, this was a day neither side was exactly thrilled was happening.
Hayward, who never has been one to seek the spotlight, did his best to downplay the occasion for the past week, repeatedly saying how much he liked his time with the Jazz, and respected the organization in the days leading up to the game. He then declined to talk to the media before Friday’s game, instead avoiding any questions about his return until after it had taken place. The fact it came long after it was supposed to, due to the gruesome leg and ankle injuries Hayward suffered six minutes into last year’s season opener in Cleveland, only added to the awkwardness.
But that didn’t prevent Hayward from taking advantage of the chance to catch up with people he’d rarely seen — if at all — since leaving the organization.
“Yeah, that was part of the cool part, to see and talk to those guys I don’t see anymore,” Hayward said. “Joe Ingles, all the people on the staff, some of the front office. Some of the fans, I saw [owner] Gail [Miller]. All that stuff was good.”
The Jazz, meanwhile, did their best to downplay the moment, as well. Jazz coach Quin Snyder opened his meeting with the media at the team’s shootaround Friday morning by announcing he wouldn’t be answering any questions about it.
He didn’t change his tune postgame.
“It is just another game,” said Snyder with a straight face, though no one could truly believe him. “The significant thing about this game is Boston’s a really good team, and we needed a home win.”
While Snyder and his players were preparing to face Hayward on the court, the rest of the Jazz organization was deciding how — or if — they should honor his return after seven years that included an all-star appearance and two playoff berths. It eventually chose not to give Hayward any kind of acknowledgement during the game, instead sending out a video early Friday afternoon on the team’s official Twitter account.
The thinking was that playing one during the game would simply provide an opportunity for fans to unload on Hayward rather than celebrate him. And, judging by the tenor of the replies to the tweet releasing the video, and the way Hayward was treated during the game, the team may have had a point.
The tenor in the building was no different. While Hayward got booed time and again, at least one fan — 16-year-old Carson Taylor, a junior at Layton High, which is located about 20 miles north of Salt Lake City — took things to another level by arriving in a Hayward jersey with his name replaced with “COWARD.”
“I got it when Gordon played here, and then after he left, I didn’t want to burn it, so I just put ‘COWARD’ on it,” said Taylor, whose grandfather has Jazz season tickets, and who hadn’t worn the jersey since Hayward left.
“I wanted to go to [the Celtics game] last year, but he got injured. My jersey has just been sitting in my closet for two years.”
That is no longer the case, though, as he was just one of the vast majority of the sellout crowd of 18,306 who showed up to give Hayward a piece of their mind.
Donovan Mitchell said afterward that it reminded him of the way the Jazz fans treated Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook during the first round of last year’s playoffs, when Westbrook became persona non grata in these parts. Jayson Tatum, on the other hand, said it reminded him of his college days, when he was playing alongside Grayson Allen — then college basketball’s most-hated player, and now a rookie guard for the Jazz who didn’t see the floor Friday night — at Duke University.
But once the game began — after Hayward was showered with another round of boos during introductions, and then exchanged pleasantries with Ingles, Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors and Mitchell immediately prior to the game tipping off — it became like any other game.
And, once it did, the Jazz immediately made it clear they wouldn’t be taking it easy on their former teammate. Instead, Snyder and the Jazz mercilessly pursued Hayward — beginning with him being on the receiving end of a Gobert screen on the game’s opening play, which resulted in an Ingles layup.
It was a sign of things to come. Utah ran Hayward through one screen after another whenever he was on the court, doing everything it could to make sure a player who still is trying to get his rhythm and conditioning back had as tough a time as possible. All told, the Jazz drove at Hayward 11 times during the game — the most of any player on the team, according to Second Spectrum.
The most symbolic moment came late in the third quarter, when Mitchell was isolated on the right wing against Hayward. And, after calmly getting to his spot near the right block, Mitchell lofted a floater over Hayward and through the hoop to push Utah’s lead back to 15 — and give the fans here exactly the kind of moment they were hoping to see between their old star player and their new one.
Snyder frantically instructed his team to get the same matchup with just over a minute to go in regulation — only that time, Mitchell’s drive to the rim was well defended by Hayward, and he missed the layup.
While Hayward still has plenty of work left to do, this was one of his best performances of the season. That was particularly true in the second half, when he had seven points and four assists and helped drag Boston back into the game after it fell behind by as many as 20 points. He was the Celtics’ best playmaker — a positive sign of things to come if he can continue to make progress, as it would then allow Kyrie Irving, who missed Friday’s game to attend his grandfather’s memorial service, to play off the ball and go into attack mode offensively.
That is something the Celtics have the next several months to worry about — as is Hayward’s recovery from his injuries, and reacclimation into the way Boston wants to play. Friday night’s game was not only a milestone from that standpoint because he checked returning here off the list, but it also was the first time he played in both halves of a back-to-back.
“I thought he did a lot of good things,” Celtics head coach Brad Stevens said. “It’s probably not the easiest position to be in, but I thought he handled it well from a playing standpoint.”
When the game ended, Hayward quickly exchanged greetings with Ingles and Ricky Rubio, and was then off the court and into the Celtics locker room within 30 seconds of the final buzzer going off.
It had taken him longer than he expected, but Hayward’s long-awaited return here was finally over. Now there’s just the rest of the season — and his attempt to once again become the player he was before he got hurt — left to play.